Photograph by Carlton Ward, Jr.
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A male Florida panther in Babcock Ranch State Preserve. Males have home ranges of up to 200 square miles and will defend their turf against other males in deadly fights.

Photograph by Carlton Ward, Jr.

Endangered Florida panthers filmed fighting for the first time

Brawls over territory are a leading cause of death for Florida panthers but until now had never been captured on camera.

For the first time, two Florida panthers have been filmed fighting, sparring over territory in South Florida.

On a turkey hunt with his son, Andres Pis was holed up in a blind when he saw movement to his right. Sure enough, it was a young male Florida panther. Just as he began filming with his smartphone, an older male “came out of nowhere and hit him like a freight train,” Pis recalls.

What ensued was a vicious battle, with the older male gaining the upper hand. After grappling for nearly a minute, the young male ran off, though Pis thinks it’s likely that the older male later killed the youngster.

Pis, a hunting guide and land manager, recorded the incident on March 31 on private land southwest of Lake Okeechobee, near Clewiston. He posted the footage to a Facebook page he runs along with Mike Elfenbein, The Panthers of South Florida, where the two regularly upload photos and videos of encounters with the cats.

The unprecedented footage shows a phenomenon called intraspecific aggression, in which two panthers fight for control over territory, often to the death. After road strikes, these kinds of fights are the second-leading documented cause of death for Florida panthers, a federally listed endangered subspecies of cougar.

“I have not seen footage like this before, and it helps us to visualize what happens in an aggressive encounter,” says Darrell Land, the Florida panther team leader with the state’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. “The larger panther appeared to be dominating the other, but the smaller was putting up considerable resistance.”

David Shindle, the panther coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, says by email that this panther battle “unfolded on well-managed private lands that provide ideal habitat for the panther.” The footage is important, he adds, “because it not only provides a rare glimpse into the nature of Florida’s iconic beast, but it exemplifies the awe and respect that many of Florida’s hunters have for their fellow predator and part-time competitor.”

Panther challenges

Due primarily to hunting and habitat fragmentation, Florida panthers almost died out by the 1970s, when there were fewer than 20 left. The remaining population was seriously inbred. In 1995, eight female Texas cougars were introduced into the population to infuse fresh genes, five of which bred successfully, before being removed from the wild. That gambit worked; since then the subspecies’ numbers have risen to somewhere around 200.

But challenges persist: The predators are still hindered by limited territory and prey, which explains why the cats frequently kill each other. Males need vast territories, up to 200 square miles, eight times the size of Manhattan. As development explodes, with 900 people moving to the state every day on average, the problem is likely to get worse, experts say.

To have a better chance to survive long-term, Florida panthers need to expand their range to the north. In 2016, for the first time since the early 1970s, a female was spotted in a place called Babcock Ranch, north of the Caloosahatchee River, previously thought to hinder northward expansion. Later, National Geographic photographer Carlton Ward Jr. captured photos of a female panther in the same area with kittens. (Learn more: Planned roads could imperil Florida's panthers.)

Nevertheless, habitat remains limited. Once a male establishes a territory, he’ll defend it and try to kill other males that encroach.

In the video, crows can be heard loudly cawing. Pis explains that crows often mob predators like panthers and make loud noises when they’re near. At the end of the fight, a large wild pig rushed toward the panthers, “perhaps looking to settle an old score,” Pis says.

“Hogs are at times an aggressive species and challenging one of their main predators would not seem to be out of character for them,” Land says.

Meredith Budd, a field representative with the nonprofit Florida Wildlife Federation, says that it looks like the distraction caused by the pig likely saved the younger panther’s life, at least temporarily. (Related: A face-to-face encounter with the elusive Florida panther.)

Cat controversy

Despite being the Florida state animal and beloved by many, Florida panthers generate some controversy. Pis and Elfenbein say they resent being denied access to some federal lands set aside in part for the cats, such as the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, as well as parts of Big Cypress National Preserve. These areas were once widely open for hunting deer, turkey, and other animals.

They say federal agencies do not properly manage Big Cypress, for example by not doing enough to foster populations of deer, and not conducting enough controlled burns to regenerate the vegetation and remove invasive species.

Other scientists and conservationists, including former Florida Wildlife Federation board member Franklin Adams, say Big Cypress National Preserve is doing a good job despite having limited resources, such as a lack of funding for controlled burns, and being hampered by lawsuits from various competing factions over management decisions.

Florida panther and kitten captured in rare footage

But all sides can agree that the Florida panther belongs on the land—and like many other creatures, panthers are threatened by systemic issues including encroaching development, disturbed hydrology caused by canals and drained wetlands, a lack of controlled fires necessary for the land’s renewal, and problems caused by invasive plants and animals like Burmese pythons.

In general, the panther's success depends on a network of wildlife corridors throughout the state, which provide habitat to many other species such as bears, alligators, bobcats, and more. Efforts to help the panther can potentially help all wildlife, since the animals are the state’s widest ranging land animal, and they need healthy prey populations and protected land.

This video highlights the need for protected wildlife corridors, Budd says. “Without the corridors to facilitate movement, you’re limiting the amount of space they have to live, and you’re increasing the chance of panthers overlapping.”